Jordan Peele’s Nope is finally here, and after months of fan theories guessing the details of its mysterious plot, as it turns out, we were all wrong. The third film in the acclaimed filmmaker’s arsenal is nothing like its nightmare-inducing predecessors, but similarly to Get Out and Us, Nope is an experience that will have you questioning everything. And its climactic ending will leave you breathless — after you realize what’s going on, of course.
Nope is a science-fiction thriller that takes place in the sandy desert town of Agua Dulce, California. Our protagonists, Otis Jr. Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his younger sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), are horse people, born and raised, but the sudden tragic death of their father puts their livelihood and their longtime family tradition at risk. The Haywoods are horse trainers, offering up their trained animals for use on Hollywood television and film sets, and they’ve been in the game for generations; their great-great-great-great grandfather, Alistair Haywood, was actually the star of the first ever moving picture, a fact that the industry has managed to erase over the years. As business gets as dry as the desert they call home, the siblings are forced to sell several of their beloved horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a child star turned entrepreneur now running local theme park Jupiter’s Claim, and things are bad enough that they might even have to hand over their ranch to stay afloat.
While mulling over the decision to effectively end their decades-old family business, more trouble shows up to complicate the Haywoods’ lives even further. Well, it doesn’t exactly just show up — danger’s been lurking around them for the past six months. Unbeknownst to OJ and Em, what looks like a UFO (or, more politically correctly, a UAP) has been hiding in plain sight behind a motionless “cloud” for almost half a year. The Haywood siblings only discover this when one of their horses is swept up into the dust cloud and abducted by the flying object before their eyes, spurring the get-rich-quick scheme of the century: capturing the first legitimate image — the “Oprah shot” — of a UFO and proving that aliens are in fact among us.
What follows is pretty chaotic — look away even for a second, and you’ll miss out on some important details. As it turns out, OJ, Em, and their new comrade/tech guy Angel (Brandon Perea) aren’t the only people who are trying to make money off of the extraterrestrial phenomenon haunting Agua Dulce. Jupe also has a keen interest in the UFO. His obsession is directly tied to the unresolved trauma of watching his Gordy’s Home castmates be fatally ravaged by Gordy, his chimpanzee co-star; because he survived Gordy’s murder rampage years ago, Jupe deludes himself into thinking he can also sidestep being killed by the town’s alien visitor.
Jupe has built with the UFO what he believes to be a relationship of sorts, offering up horses — Haywood ranch horses — over the last several months in the hopes that he’ll be able to demonstrate their connection in real time during a show-stopping event at Jupiter’s Claim that will put him back on the map. But it doesn’t go the way Jupe expects it to. Instead, the alien takes its feeding frenzy to another level, violently swallowing almost everything in its path, including Jupe, his family, and everyone curious enough to stop by the one-night only event. During the attack, OJ discovers that the UFO in the sky is actually an animal, and like all animals, it operates by the laws of nature. The main law? Establishing its dominance in its new territory.
Thus begins the final, most heart-stopping act of Jordan Peele’s ambitious production. The alien animal discovery is a credit to OJ’s close study of animals under the tutelage of his late father, and armed with this new knowledge, the team comes up with a lofty plan to put the alien (nicknamed Jean Jacket after a particularly difficult to train horse from their past) in its place. Yes, it may be a threat unlike any the world has ever seen before, but ultimately, Jean Jacket is just an animal, meaning that it can be tamed — just as long as they take its power and its capacity for destruction seriously.
The mission, which now includes the help of famed film director Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) in order to capture the “Oprah shot,” unfolds rather quickly, a collaboration of carefully placed inflatable sky dancers and cameras meant to lure Jean Jacket out from behind the cloud so that it can be captured in real time. But this is a Jordan Peele movie — what’s supposed to happen never actually happens. The motley crew’s plans are foiled by the sudden appearance of a TMZ photographer on a motorbike, drawing out the alien earlier than they’d anticipated and setting off a chain of unforeseen complications. After having the paparazzi as an appetizer, Jean Jacket amps up its violence, swallowing the group’s resident filmographer whole before setting its sights (does it have eyes??) on OJ. Desperate to save her brother, Em makes a mad dash to release a giant helium balloon from Jupiter’s Claim into the sky, and thankfully, a newly- metamorphosed Jean Jacket takes the bait. Seeing the balloon as a challenge to its status as the apex predator, the alien swallows it whole without hesitation. Because it can only feed on living things, Jean Jacket meets its fateful end, exploding in the sky. And Em, ever enterprising, manages to capture it all on camera.
I stayed behind all the way through the film’s end credits like I would for an MCU or DCEU movie (IYKYK), hoping to get a glimpse of something that would help me understand what I just watched. There was nothing, of course, but the chatter of other overwhelmed moviegoers leaving the theater. Several days and many Reddit threads later, I realized that an insatiable curiosity and inability to look away is exactly what Nope is really about. In all of Peele’s post-release interviews about the film, the word “spectacle” keeps coming up, speaking to society’s obsession with perceiving and being perceived. From the Kardashians to The Shade Room to modern politics, literally everything is a spectacle, and we constantly participate in it even when it is harmful to us. In the Jordan Peele bible of symbolism, Jean Jacket and its hostile takeover of Agua Dulce are a far-out, twisted cautionary tale of what happens to society when we dull our instincts to the point that we can’t look away: we are consumed.
“I think people might expect for a villain to emerge in a more clear way in this film, and it doesn't quite happen like that,” Peele told GQ in a joint interview with leading lady Palmer. “The villain is this otherworldly threat. And it is also something that everyone has in common — everyone's relationship to the spectacle.”
It doesn’t escape me that, by positioning his Black characters as both the victors and saviors of this story, Peele is also subverting the filmic trope and unfortunate reality of Black suffering and death as the spectacle Hollywood can't stay away from. Although OJ and Em initially get caught up in their desire to capture the first image of Jean Jacket, they’re able to survive by becoming conscious consumers of this spectacle, knowing when to fully engage with the chaos unfolding before them and when to avert their gaze for their own safety. The Haywood siblings’ victory over Jean Jacket is even more meaningful when we think of how their family was blotted out from the history of filmmaking and unseen to everyone consuming the art form that they directly influenced. Em’s final photo and the fact that she and her brother survive an extraterrestrial attack are a reminder of the staying power of Black culture and of Black people. We simply cannot be erased — not even by an alien invasion.
Nope is now showing in theaters.